Buffalo Are Centerpiece of Va. Farm-to-Plate Business

7/5/2014 7:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Virginia Correspondent

RINER,Va. — A little village four miles south of Interstate 81 on Route 8 is a direct route to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Montgomery County, Va., and Riner is well on its way to becoming a destination in itself, thanks to buffalo that roam the countryside.

Buffalo and More, a tiny restaurant tucked in a rural strip mall, is ranked No. 9 in a list of “30 Places in Virginia to Eat Before You Die” by the Food Lovers Guide to Virginia.

Partners Connie Hale and Carla George, and their staff, stayed cool on a recent early summer day as they took orders, prepared food, answered questions and passed the time of day with locals asking about the restaurant’s Fourth of July plans.

Hale and George operate a real farm-to-plate business, raising their animals 15 miles away on Brush Creek Buffalo Farm.

The farm and restaurant predate Hale and George owning it. The restaurant was originally called Brush Creek Buffalo Store and was operated by Jim and Jan Polotis, who needed a retail outlet for their buffalo meat, Hale said. Brush Creek Buffalo Farm is on land that’s been in Jan Polotis’ family for many years.

Hale bought the restaurant after the Polotis family decided they wanted to downsize, but the Polotis family still supplied the meat for a time. They then sold their herd of bison, Hale said, meaning she had to find another meat supplier.

George, who cares for the herd of around 60 animals, said her dad told them they needed their own bison herd. They took his advice and began looking. The search led them to Greenville, Tenn., where they found a herd of 35 animals. When they moved them to Virginia on Nov. 6, 2009, the herd had grown to 42.

George recently talked about the herd while filling water troughs for the hot thirsty beasts, looking for the newest 2-week-old member of the herd, pulling handfuls of shaggy hair from her favorite animal, Buffy, and telling stories about each animal.

There are actually two Buffys, Hale and George said. Back at the restaurant is a 600-pound concrete buffalo statue with its own pink cowgirl hat that greets customers. The pair bought it on their way to get the live animals and named it Buffy.

When they arrived to load the herd, they found another Buffy. She was a buffalo that had grown up on an acre of land with some cows, George said. The young man who raised her was leaving for school and gave the animal to the folks who had owned the herd. Today, the 12-year-old Buffy is the matriarch of the Brush Creek herd, George said.

She said there’s been four times Buffy has intervened when she was in danger of getting hurt. While the animals are usually easy to handle, George acknowledges they are still wild animals, and they can hurt a person.

She said one time an animal was charging at her and she ran for the gate. When she got across it, she turned and Buffy was there standing behind her.

“I say she knows mom,” she said.

The women, both in their early 50s, bring complementary skills to the business. Hale is the head chef and holds a degree in nutrition, while George grew up on a beef cattle farm. George does not have formal training in caring for livestock, but she has found her niche in life.

“I love it,” she said.

The people George and Hale bought their buffalo from only used the males for meat, and Hale and George have chosen to follow their example. This allows them to keep the females and help preserve native animals that have been faced with the possibility of disappearing. Two kinds of buffalo live at Brush Creek: plains buffalo and wood buffalo.

Their herd of females is closed, meaning that they have all been born on the farm, and their bulls come from herds that are certified brucellosis free, Hale said. They currently have two herd sires: Zeus, who is 7, and Thor, who is 4.

Mature bulls can weigh between 2,500-3,000 pounds, with cows weighing about 1,800 pounds.

Hale said the farm belongs to the National Bison Association and are able to trade and negotiate with other members to find bulls. They look for animals with good dispositions and sturdy physical attributes.

The animals are grass fed using rotational grazing practices and hay grown on the 96-acre farm. They are well-trained and easy to keep in their fields, Hale said, as they recognize the farm vehicle and come to it.

Word of the bison herd and restaurant continues to spread. The herd and the restaurant, with its wide selection of buffalo dishes, have been featured in the magazine, Virginia Living, and in the newspaper, The Virginian Pilot. This attention, the location, the product and the welcoming atmosphere of the restaurant seem to point to happy times for this agritourism business.

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